Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 10, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for September 10

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 10, 2023

Matthew 18:15-20

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

I saw a picture of a church sign someone shared on social media recently. It bore a message that didn’t come across in quite the way it was intended. It said, “We love hurting people.” Now Martin Luther encourages us in the Small Catechism to make a habit of interpreting other peoples’ words in the most charitable light, so we can assume that what this congregation meant to say is that they love people who are hurting. That’s a good message! But that’s not how it sounds at first glance, does it? It sounds like this congregation gets a perverse joy out of inflicting pain on others! “We love hurting people!”

Sadly, this sign’s unfortunate wording conveys an all-too-frequent truth about the church: sometimes we hurt each other. I don’t think most church members set out to do this. Most of the time it isn’t intentional. I certainly don’t think any church member actually loves hurting people. I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met in church who actually takes pleasure in it.

But the sad truth about life in the church is that sometimes we do hurt people. Sometimes we hurt each other. And the hurt that happens in church can be particularly painful because we rightly believe that church should be a safe place. The hurt that happens in church is similar to the hurt that happens in family life. It hurts more because we have higher expectations in those contexts. It hurts more because these are the people we should be able to trust. It hurts more because we believe these are the places we should experience love and care, not hurt. Like our families, if church isn’t a safe place for us, it seems like nowhere is, and the world can then seem awfully cruel and hopeless.

I know church hurts hit differently because I hear about them all the time. They make a big impact on people. I’ve had people turn down invitations to serve on council because they have PTSD from the last time they were on it decades ago. I’ve heard of how people have bravely stepped forward to volunteer for something, putting themselves out there, making themselves vulnerable, trying something new, and then they are snapped at by someone for not doing it the way they think it should be done. That hurts! I’ve heard of people being hurt because they were overlooked or not included in something, intentionally or not.

I know too that I as a pastor have caused hurt. I sincerely cannot think of a time I ever did so intentionally. I certainly don’t love it when it happens. But it does happen. Sometimes a lame attempt at humor or a poor choice of words comes across as flippant or uncaring. Sometimes I fail to remember something important about someone, an important detail, even a name. Sometimes my head is full and I can seem distant.

Church hurts hit differently, and I can’t promise that I won’t be the cause of some of them, however unintentionally. I know church hurts hit differently, because I’ve been hurt by them too.

The good news in our gospel reading for today is that Jesus knows this about his church. Jesus anticipates that church members will sin against each other. He knows that when he calls a bunch of sinners together to live as brothers and sisters and appoints another sinner to be their shepherd that there are going to be problems from time to time. I find great comfort and hope in the simple fact that Jesus already knows this about us! While church should be a safe place, while it should be a place of love and care and not hurt, Jesus knows that we will not carry out this calling perfectly. Jesus knows this and yet he calls us to live together as his people anyway.

And as he calls us together to be his church, he gives us a template for how to handle the inevitable hurts that happen when sinners are placed in close proximity to one another. “If a member of the church sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Jesus encourages us to be intentional about seeking reconciliation. Rather than spreading the hurt by sharing it with everyone BUT the person who inflicted it, Jesus instructs us to go to the source in an effort to restore the relationship.

If that doesn’t work, Jesus continues, bring two or three other members with you – not to gang up on anyone, but to serve as witnesses, as mediators to help sort things out. Again the goal is to “regain that one,” to restore the relationship.

If that doesn’t work, Jesus says, it should be brought before the entire church. This doesn’t mean standing up in the middle of a service and pointing fingers. It means bringing it to the church authorities for their help. We have an entire chapter in our constitution dealing with church discipline, and our bishop’s office has a standing committee on discipline to deal with things when they get out of control. But even here the goal is always reconciliation. The goal is always to “regain that one” whenever possible.

But what if that doesn’t work? What then? “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church,” Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” What does this mean? Honestly, I’m not sure. It is highly debated among biblical interpreters. Some suggest it means putting them outside of the fellowship, keeping your distance, which is how Gentiles and tax collectors were commonly treated by pious Jews in Jesus’ time. They say it means establishing healthy boundaries, as we might say today.

This makes some sense to me. There are times when this is necessary. For instance, pastors or other church leaders who engage in abuse need to be removed from their positions. Full stop. In some rare, extreme circumstances, church members need to be removed from congregations. I have a pastor friend who had a woman in his congregation who was being stalked and harassed by another church member. When he refused to listen to the charges or change his ways, he had to be barred from attendance at all church functions. Jesus, then, might be speaking to those situations where the hurt is too deep or the danger is ongoing and it just needs to be stopped.

Others, however, have pointed out that Jesus came to include Gentiles and tax collectors. He came to graft them into the people of God. He continued to offer forgiveness to Gentiles and tax collectors along with every other kind of sinner. In fact, Matthew, the very author of this gospel, was himself a tax collector at one point! Jesus has a proven track record of reconciling both Gentiles and tax collectors, so perhaps Jesus has a proven track record of reconciling both Gentiles and tax collectors, so perhaps he is calling us to redouble our efforts at reconciliation, with him as our example.

These two interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive, I don’t think. We can recognize that there are times when toxic people or situations require drawing lines and establishing boundaries, while at the same time we never give up on praying that repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation would happen in one form or another, trusting that ultimately it is Christ’s job to make it happen, not ours.

These instructions are so very helpful. They are so important. Jesus is teaching us to lean into the inevitable conflicts that arise in church. He is teaching us to see every dispute as an opportunity for pursuing reconciliation, an opportunity for building community, an opportunity even for spiritual growth as we put our trust in him.

But Jesus gives us something even better than instructions in our gospel reading for today. He also gives us a promise. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” he says, “I am there among them.”

Church life is messy and sometimes even painful. When you gather together a group of sinners to live together in close proximity, there is going to be trouble. We are going to step on each other’s toes from time to time. There are going to be misunderstandings. We are going to fail one another in ways that are hurtful.

What makes it all worth it is that Jesus is here. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus gives us the safety we seek. He provides the love and care we long for. He forgives us all our trespasses and teaches and empowers us to forgive those who trespass against us. Even in the midst of all the failings of his people – which he himself anticipated! – he is here.

Because Jesus is here, our hurts can be healed. Because Jesus is here, the church is a place of reconciliation – first with God, and then with one another. Because Jesus is here, people who are hurting do indeed find love.

Our love will always be imperfect at best. His love is perfect and eternal.

And he is here today to give that love to you.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 3, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for September 3

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 3, 2023

Matthew 16:21-23

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

What a difference a week makes! Last week Peter was a hero of the faith. In the midst of all kinds of wrong answers floating around about who Jesus was, Peter got it right. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asked him, and Peter responded: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus was so thrilled with Peter’s answer, coming as it did from the Father himself, who revealed this to Peter, that Jesus said, “You are Petros, which in Greek means “rock.” “You are the rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”

Now here we are a week later, picking up right where we left off last week in the gospel, and here things have taken a drastic turn. Peter goes from being a mouthpiece for God the Father just a verse or two before to being a mouthpiece for Satan himself. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said to him, “You are a stumbling-block to me!” On a dime, Peter goes from being a rock to being a stumbling block.

What happened? Well, after Peter made his good confession, after he correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of the living God, Jesus went on to teach Peter and all the disciples what that meant. Jesus taught them HOW he was going to save them. As St. Matthew tells us, “Jesus began to show them that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Peter answered the “who” question exactly right, but he did not like what Jesus was saying about the “how.” He didn’t like what he was hearing about this suffering and dying business. We can hardly blame him. I mean, Peter cared about Jesus. He loved him. No one wants the people you love and care about to suffer. But Peter went so far as to rebuke Jesus! Can you imagine? Peter knew that Jesus was the Son of the living God and he had the gall to rebuke him, to scold him, to berate him!

Jesus tells us more specifically what happened to turn Peter from a spokesman for God into a spokesman for Satan, from a rock to a stumbling block. Jesus says that Peter was setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. In his human way of thinking, Peter wanted salvation without suffering. He wanted forgiveness and atonement without sacrifice. He wanted a Christ without the cross. In putting his mind on human things rather than divine things, by reflexively rejecting suffering, Peter was missing the very means by which Christ would save us from our sin.

And not only that, but by putting his mind on human things rather than on divine things, Peter had entirely missed what would come AFTER the suffering! He missed the promise of the resurrection. He missed the part where Jesus said that on the third day he would be raised. He missed it now, and he missed it later too. You’ll recall from the Easter story that on the third day after Jesus’ death Peter was sitting around twiddling his thumbs, expecting nothing. He had to be reminded of what Jesus said!

Putting one’s mind on human things rather than on divine things was not just a problem for Peter. It is a problem for all of us. It is a common human reflex, especially in the breathtaking hubris of modern times, for people to mentally pull Jesus aside, thinking they know better than him, correcting him with their modern sensibilities.

To put our mind on divine things is to listen to Christ’s Word and to trust that he knows what he’s talking about. It is to surrender to the holy wisdom of his Word. To put our mind on divine things is to look to the cross of Christ not as meaningless suffering, but as the means of our salvation. It is to trust in Jesus’ promise that after the suffering comes the resurrection.

After addressing Peter, Jesus turned to the rest of the disciples and said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Now Jesus was talking not only about what would happen to him, but what would happen to them, and to all of us. Those who follow Jesus will have crosses of their own to carry. They can expect some suffering of their own.

Furthermore, those who follow Jesus are called to deny themselves. This is so very countercultural in a world where we are constantly encouraged to seek self-fulfillment. (“Follow your bliss.) This is countercultural in a society where the self is seen as the primary arbiter of truth. (“Seek your truth.”). This is countercultural in a society where the goal of human life is seen as self-actualization, in a culture that exalts the self-made person and self-reliance. Both ends of the political spectrum and both sides in the culture wars have their version of exalting the almighty self.

Followers of Jesus are instead called to deny themselves. This is not so much about external things. It isn’t so much about depriving yourself of all earthly pleasures. As Christians we are called to a measure of self-restraint in many situations, to be sure, but this goes much deeper.  In calling us to deny ourselves Jesus is taking away one of our favorite idols: the self. He is telling us to not turn our self into our god, that to which we look for all purpose and meaning in life. This is about not turning yourself into the final authority on truth. Above all, it is about not looking to yourself for your salvation.

Life isn’t about finding yourself, it is about being found in Christ. Life isn’t about self-actualization, but Christ being actualized in us. It is not about being definers of our own truths, but humbling ourselves before God’s truth. It is not about being self-made, but acknowledging that we are creatures who have been lovingly made and provided for by God. It is not about being self-reliant, it is about being fully reliant on Christ.

Jesus goes on to say that those who want to save their life will lose it, and that those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will find it. In the early church this was quite literal. St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, literally lost his life for Jesus’ sake. There are some parts of the world today where being a Christian literally puts your life at risk.

But there’s another way of understanding this, and it follows from what Jesus said about denying ourselves. Losing your life can also be understood as losing your “self.” In giving your entire life, your entire self, to Christ, you find what really gives life. Yes, you will lose your life, in a sense, but you will find it again in him. You will find the life that is really life.

Peter’s mistake was a very human one. Human beings are wired to avoid suffering. This is usually good. It is mostly a feature and not a bug. For instance, we naturally pull our hand away from a hot stove to avoid being burned. That’s good! But this impulse towards self-preservation can be used against us. It can become a stumbling block. Satan can use it to put a wedge between us and God, just as he did with Peter. The devil can exploit this impulse to bring us to ruin.

Last week I watched the hit Netflix series “Pain Killer,” which is about OxyContin and the opioid epidemic. As Purdue pharma was developing their new drug, one of their executives spoke loftily about ending pain once and for all. He wanted to take the morphine molecule, which had been associated with death, and market it in a way that associated it with life. He wanted his pill widely distributed, and used terms like “setting people free,” and “giving them their lives back.” I know many people suffer from chronic pain, and I don’t want to be dismissive of that longing for relief. But you know how the rest of the story unfolds. You see it every night on the news. The same molecule that promised life delivered for a while, but then brought a tidal wave of addiction and heartache and death that continues to this day.

If you know my recent family history, you know that I already bring my own baggage to a show like this, but it is hard not to see this as demonic. The human impulse to avoid suffering was hijacked by demonic forces, bringing even more suffering and death. This is how the devil works. This is what he tried with Peter, and what he continues to try with us, in a million different ways.

And so our Lord Jesus calls us to set our minds on divine things. We counter this my setting our minds on divine things, by keeping our eyes on Christ and his Word.

We are to take him at his word and look at his suffering and death on the cross as the “how” of our salvation. It is his sacrificial suffering and not our self-pursuits that save us.

We are to take him at his word and follow him by taking up our own crosses, enduring our own suffering. The gospel is not a pain killer. Sorry Karl Marx, but it is not the opiate of the masses. The gospel does not take away suffering, not immediately anyway. Anyone who has followed Jesus for any length of time knows this to be true. We are instead to endure suffering patiently, as St. Paul says in our reading from Romans, not letting the devil use it as a wedge between us and God, turning us into a stumbling block, or bringing us to ruin.

We are to take him at his word and also hear the promise he gives us. Setting our mind on divine things also means remembering what he promised about the third day. It means trusting in the promise of the resurrection. It means living in hope, for suffering did not have the last word for Jesus, and it will not have the last word for us either.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church